Last night, the Houston Rockets gutted out a win against the league best Milwaukee Bucks, 120-116. The Rockets were out-rebounded by 29, outscored in the paint by 40, and shot 9% worse from the field (40% compared to 49%). This Rockets team is fun. They defy basketball norms, and while they can certainly be irritating, they are just a joy to watch operate. This was one of the best games of the Bubble so far; what can we take from it?
Houston CAN be suffocating on Defense
Houston forced 22 turnovers against the Bucks last night, 7 more than Milwaukee usually gives up. This was huge for the Rockets to balance out their rebounding disadvantage in tandem with their outside shooting. The way they forced turnovers was what was so impressive to me. Often times, we see lackadaisical defensive possessions from Russ & Harden; those were few and far between. James Harden played some incredible defense, specifically in the passing lanes and stifled more than a few Giannis drives to the rim.
The Rockets were largely engaged on the defensive side most of the night, but ramped it up in the second half. They were swarming ball handlers out of pick-and-roll and the activity of their hands was ridiculous, watch this possession.
Not every possession resulted in a turnover of course, but the way the Rockets rotated and utilized their length to muck up what Milwaukee was doing on the interior was significant.
Also significant was the way Houston was active on their perimeter switches, playing up tight on picks. The Bucks 9/35 from three, good for just under 26%. While part of it was a poor shooting night, credit has to be given for how tightly the Rockets played up on shooter and made it difficult to find open threes.
If this defense is going to be the norm for Houston in the Orlando, I view their playoff outlook very differently.
Brook Lopez’s low post throwback
While the Bucks came away with the loss, very little can be attributed to Brook Lopez.
Lopez threw it back last night and reminded me of why he was an All-Star once upon a time in Brooklyn. Brook was the primary outlet for the Bucks’ offense in the second half when plays broke down or he got a mismatch in the post, and there were MANY mismatches.
However, P.J. Tucker was phenomenal against Brook and was the only really bastion of defense against Lopez’s low-post dominance, holding him to 0/4 shooting and stripping him once when his primary defender.
Lopez finished the game with 23 & 12 and was a force defensively.
Corner 3’s killed the Bucks
P.J. Tucker, Jeff Green, and Danuel House Jr. combined for 12/32 with all but one of their makes and seven of their attempts coming from the corner or at the rim. The essence of Morey-Ball; High volume of the most efficient shots.
Mike Budenholzer’s defensive scheme is focused on defending the rim with the weak-side man rotating to protect the paint when facing strong drivers. When facing James Harden and Russell Westbrook, arguably the best duo of drivers in the league, this has a tendency to open up corner threes; Houston shoots the most corner threes in the league and hits them at a 38.7% clip per Cleaning the Glass. So, while Bud’s scheme works incredibly well against the majority of NBA teams, the Rockets can exploit the hell out of this when they’re shooting well.
When implementing a side screen and roll as seen here, this creates even more of a dilemma for the weakside defenders. You either have Harden going to the rim one on one, or you double to force a pass out. Considering that Harden has one of the highest free-throw rates in the league (.53 free throws per field goal attempt) and is shooting 63% at-rim, forcing him to pass makes sense. But, it certainly brings into question how the Bucks continue to scheme against the Rockets in, dare I say it? A potential finals match up (I sure hope so.)
Questions we’ll hopefully have answers to in the future:
Was this an outlier performance & can Houston replicate it for an entire series?
The Bucks shot terribly, the Rockets were out-rebounded by a massive margin and won the turnover battle significantly as well. It is difficult to repeat performances like this especially given the way shooting can vary from game to game. Playing defense with this small of a lineup could pose problems over the course of a series as match-ups become more important. Houston has to exert so much effort the way they swarm on defense to keep things tight. Can they maintain that effort and intensity for a seven game series? That is a MAJOR ask when you’re only running an eight man rotation. I’m hopeful for the Rockets, but I’m pessimistic that the defense can hold up for lengthy stretches.
When will Bud play Giannis extended minutes at the 5?
Giannis got a 20-30 second burst at the five with less than a minute left when the Bucks were hunting a three; Lopez came back in after subbing out for Kyle Korver. Giannis spent the rest of the game playing next to either Lopez brother or Marvin Williams for the night. Especially against a smaller team like Houston, shifting Giannis to the five and bringing another wing into the fold and utilizing more switching with Giannis floating in the paint is tantalizing.
While it seems like a logical shift, it makes you wonder what;s the right move. This is a historically great team. Do you go away from what makes you great to be more flexible with your match-up? Or, do you keep hammering away with the same schemes? After the problems that this team faced in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, I say why not try it?
In 433 possessions this season (small sample size), lineups where Giannis plays the five are +21.4pp/100 (+14.8 when he’s at the four) with a 116.6 ORtg & 95.2 DRtg. It’s a small sample size still, but there are indications that Giannis at the five could be what fully unlocks this roster and propels them from great to nearly unstoppable. This reminds me a ton of when Golden State finally move Draymond to the five for their death lineup and went from a very good team to historically great. I hope it happens!
Best Moment of the Night
Liquid Swords played over the in-arena speakers with 4 minutes left and I shed tears of joy.